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Listed: Volumes I-VI by Noelle Adams (1)

ONE

 

Emily Brennan felt sick, and it wasn’t from the virus.

She knocked on the door that adjoined her hotel room to Paul’s, fidgeting until she realized what she was doing.

Forcing her body to relax, she told herself she had no reason to be nervous.

She had absolutely nothing to lose.

Yes, this was a crazy idea. Yes, even a couple of weeks ago, she never would have dared to do it. Yes, it meant asking someone for help, when she’d spent most of her life trying to be self-sufficient. And, yes, she was potentially setting herself up for consummate humiliation.

But if this conversation turned out to be an embarrassing nightmare, she had only three months left to live with it.

It was still early, not even seven yet, but she wasn’t surprised when Paul Marino opened the door, already fully dressed in jeans and a charcoal gray t-shirt that matched his eyes. He had dark hair, with classic features and a lean, athletic body. As always, he managed to look cool, sexy, and expensive, even first thing in the morning.

From the state of the desk near the window looking out on the harbor, he’d evidently been up for a while. A few months ago, she never would have pegged him for an early riser.

“Good morning,” he said with a little smile. “You’re up early.”

She hated that gentle expression in his eyes as they rested on her face. He’d never looked at her that way before she’d been diagnosed with this mystery virus, and now he never looked at her in any other way.

She knew what the look meant. He felt sorry for her—because she was going to die.

She didn’t want his pity, although she would use it if she had to.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

Yesterday, she’d had an appointment with the last of the viral specialists Paul had found for her—this one in Baltimore. When this doctor’s prognosis was exactly the same as the others, she’d accepted that there wasn’t any hope.

They’d seen what this virus had done to Emily’s aunt, and they knew all the treatments that hadn’t worked, that hadn’t even touched the relentlessly progressive illness. They couldn’t isolate the virus, so there was no hope of developing an anti-viral medication.

No one knew how Emily or her aunt had contracted this virus, but all the doctors agreed it was terminal.

So Emily had stayed awake all night, deciding what to do in her last three months.

She could sink into depression at the brutal injustice of the universe. She could, in desperation, cling to a futile hope for a cure.

Or she could live, for the little time she had left.

She saw room service had brought Paul a cart with coffee, fruit, and pastries, so she went to pour herself a cup of coffee. Before this last month, she’d never stayed anywhere as luxurious as this hotel, but Paul always traveled first class.

They might have grown up in the same South Philly neighborhood, but their lives had always been miles apart. Even before he’d left town for an Ivy League college, Paul hadn’t looked or sounded like he was from the neighborhood.

“How do you feel?” he asked. He’d returned to his seat at the desk.

“Fine.” With the exception of two short-lived, low-grade fevers, she hadn’t had any obvious symptoms.

Her aunt had never had any symptoms except intensifying fevers, and the last fever had killed her.

Emily sat down with her coffee in a chair near Paul, and he turned in her direction, leaning forward with his elbows on the armrests. He obviously could tell she had something to say.

She considered herself fairly brave. Others had even called her tough. She’d grown up mostly taking care of herself, tackling any hurdle that got in her way. She balked, though, at the realization of what she was about to do.

Proposing marriage to a man who didn’t love her, who wasn’t even really her friend, just wasn’t something a girl faced every day.

Instead of getting straight to the point, she stalled for a minute, nodding toward the laptop and piles of papers on the desk. “What are you working on?”

Unlike Emily, Paul was born into money—the son of a department store heiress and an organized-crime boss. Paul hadn’t taken money from his father in ten years, but he still hadn’t worked a day in his life.

 “I was looking for another doctor to—”

“No,” Emily interrupted sharply. “We talked about this yesterday. No more doctors. No more specialists. No crazy treatments that will keep me in the hospital and have no chance of working. Aunt Mary had to go through all that, and she was miserable for the last weeks of her life. I’m not going to do it too.”

Emily felt a little queasy at the thought of her aunt, who’d worked for two decades without incident as a security guard before dying in terrible pain from something as seemingly harmless as a virus. She and her aunt hadn’t been that close, but they were family and they’d tried to take care of each other this last year.

Now, Emily had no one left.

Paul’s features twisted slightly, as if he were suppressing an instinct to argue. Instead, he said quietly, “You can’t just give up.”

He wasn’t a quiet man. He could talk his way out of any sort of trouble and into any woman’s bed. She assumed he was restraining his natural charisma because he thought she was too delicate to handle it. It was annoying but not something she could deal with now.

“I’m not giving up.” About this she was sure, so she didn’t waver or hesitate in her response. “I’m making a conscious choice about how to spend my last three months.”

“All right. It’s your choice. So what do you want to do?”

“I want to live.” Despite her attempt at self-possession, her voice cracked on the last word. She swallowed over the lump and hoped Paul hadn’t noticed.

Evidently, he had. His handsome face was briefly torn between pity and discomfort.

They’d known each other all their lives from the neighborhood, but Paul was six years older than her, and they’d run in very different circles. He wouldn’t be any more comfortable with this intimate conversation than she was.

If hadn’t needed her to testify against his mob-boss father, who was being brought up on federal charges, then she wouldn’t be more than a brief blip on his radar.

“Of course, you want to live. If you’ll just let me look for more options—”

“There are no options. You’ve done what you can, and I really appreciate it. But I’m not expecting you to save me.”

“I promised to protect you when you refused witness protection. Do you think I’d go back on my word?”

She briefly wondered how Paul Marino—bad-boy prince of their community, who’d spent most of his life playing around, chasing thrills, and getting in trouble—was so utterly serious right now. With her. About her.

Not out of affection, but because he’d decided sometime in the last six months that his father should be in prison.

He needed her to testify. That actually worked in her favor, given what she was about to ask him.

“Yeah, I know that.” She pitched her voice as light and ironic on purpose, since this was another topic that made her uncomfortable. She wasn’t sure what to do with Paul’s somewhat paranoid suspicions regarding his father. Everyone else seemed to understand Vincent Marino better than his own son did. “But you were talking about protecting me from garrote-wielding wiseguys, who might try to off me before I can snitch on your dad.”

“Don’t laugh it off.” He sounded annoyed for the first time that morning. “He might pretend to be civilized, but he’s the same kind of thug his father was. You don’t know him like I do. He’s perfectly capable of—”

“I believe he’s capable of violence, and I have no doubt he’s arranged to have people killed. But only…only soldiers. He’s old-school. He’s not going to kill a teenage girl from the neighborhood. Or his son.”

“I’m not convinced of that.”

She was silent, wondering if Paul, with his privileged life and innate entitlement to anything he desired, really believed his own father was so completely ruthless.

“He burned down your house,” he added.

“When no one was in it.” She made the comment offhand, but she didn’t feel that way. She’d loved the old row house where she’d lived most of her life. There wasn’t anything left to salvage after Marino’s men had burned it down as a warning to keep what she knew about him to herself.

The irony was, if he hadn’t burned down the house, she never would have decided to testify against him. South Philly wasn’t what it used to be, but there was still a lingering community loyalty that Emily would have intuitively fallen back on. She didn’t like to be bullied, though, and her instinct was always to resist any attempt to control her.

Vincent Marino had tried to do both.

“I don’t want to get into this argument again.” She rubbed her face and tried to focus on the matter at hand. “The point is that I was fine with you hiring a bodyguard to follow me around, but you can’t protect me from this. No one can.”

She felt vulnerable again, so she shifted in her seat, distracting herself by scanning the papers on the desk.

She noticed something that struck her as strange. “What is this?” she asked, picking up a legal pad with Paul’s scrawlings on it. “This doesn’t look like research on viral specialists—”

She broke off abruptly when he snatched the pad out of her hand.

“What is that?” she persisted, despite Paul’s annoyed scowl. “Why are you researching biological weapons?”

He tightened his lips, as if he wasn’t going to answer. Then he must have remembered she was dying and must be humored, since his face relaxed and he let out a sigh. “You know my father traffics in drugs and arms—anything with a high profit margin. The weapons he deals in aren’t just guns and missiles. I know he’s been interested in biological weapons for a while, and I was wondering… This virus seems like a strange coincidence, and since your aunt was going to testify against him too and she worked in his research facility…”

Emily gasped. “You can’t be serious. You think he gave us this virus? Paul, that’s totally paranoid. I know he’s a criminal, but he’s not some diabolical mastermind.” Her opinion of Vincent Marino was what the neighborhood’s view had always been, and nothing in her experiences this year had changed it. “Besides, my aunt didn’t have important testimony to give. She was just going to confirm that I was bringing her a snack when I overheard that conversation. She didn’t know anything worth killing over.”

He obviously disagreed and wasn’t happy with her vehement response, but he nobly suppressed his instinct to argue with the sick girl. “I’m not assuming you were given the virus on purpose. Maybe it was accidental contamination.”

“But it doesn’t spread from person-to-person contact, so both she and I would have had to be directly exposed. I don’t see how that could be possible.”

It wasn’t an idea she’d considered before, so her voice was slightly distracted as she thought over the possibility.

After a minute, she concluded it was ridiculous to entertain such unlikely notions, and Paul was just indulging paranoid fantasies. All the doctors agreed that this virus was going to kill her, so she wasn’t going to clutch at vapors of hope.

She was suddenly swallowed up in a surreal haze—as if the elegant room, the broad expanse of harbor-view out the window, and Paul’s tense, attractive face had transformed into an alien landscape, where nothing was normal, nothing was safe.

She couldn’t believe she only had three months to live. She wasn’t even eighteen yet.

But there was still something she could do, accomplish, complete before her life was over.

With that in mind, she said, “Anyway, back to the point. When I said I want to live, I didn’t mean I want to find a miracle cure. I’m not stupid enough to think there’s one out there. I mean, for my last three months, I want to live. Most of my life, I’ve been trying to just scrape by, with no time between work and school to even have any fun. I kept thinking, when I’m finally…” She exhaled, vaguely embarrassed by the confession. She wasn’t in the habit of making herself vulnerable, particularly with Paul Marino. “I kept thinking, when I finally get settled, I could relax and do some of the things I want. I just hadn’t gotten there yet. I don’t want it to be too late. I don’t want to die before I do them.”

From the outside, her life probably looked pretty bleak—with her mother on the street somewhere, in a downward spiral of drug addiction, and her dad pouring himself into his doomed corner store until he finally worked himself into a heart-attack two years ago. But she’d always had a place to live, and she hadn’t been unhappy. She had plenty of friends, she was saving up for college, and she didn’t mind being mostly on her own.

Until she’d accidently overheard a private conversation of Vincent Marino’s, she’d had a perfectly good life.

“I see,” Paul said, his expression softening as if he understood what she was trying to say. “That makes sense. How can I help you?” He had that deep magnetism in his gaze—that made whomever he spoke to feel like he was completely invested in the conversation, like there was a weight to his regard beyond normal social interaction.

She wasn’t surprised so many women were crazy about him. Just by looking at them, he could make them feel like they were the only important person in the world.

She was nervous again now. Her heart raced. If she’d had more than three months to live, she never would have dared to do this.

But what exactly did she have to lose at this point?

So she came out and said it. “You can marry me.”

It was a tribute to his self-possession that Paul reacted with only a blink.

Since she didn’t want him to say no before she explained, she hurried on, “I don’t want to spend my last few months in hospitals. And, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure I want to spend my last days as a witness in a long, drawn-out, criminal trial.”

Paul stared at her for a few seconds before he glanced away, out at the view of the harbor. “I see.” She could tell he was trying to keep his calm composure.

Like she was a frightened rabbit who might flee at any sudden move.

“I can understand that too,” he continued, looking back at her. “And I won’t object if you decide you can’t testify. It was always your choice, and I appreciate your willingness when circumstances were different.”

“Well,” she said, with an attempt at her old smile, the one everyone said was her best feature, “I was hardly doing it for you. It was that or let your dad bully me. And I’m not saying I won’t testify. I know putting your father in prison is the most important thing to you right now.”

Paul opened his mouth like he would respond, but no sound came out.

“But I hope you’ll acknowledge it’s a sacrifice for me to do it and maybe offer me something in return besides protection.”

“This is where the, uh, marriage comes in?”

She nodded and pulled out of the pocket of her hoodie sweatshirt a wrinkled piece of paper that had been folded three times. “Every year, when I was a kid, I would write a list. People call them ‘bucket lists’ now, but I’d never heard that term. It was just a list of things I wanted to do before I died. My ideas kept changing, so I kept writing new ones. This is the last one I wrote, when I was twelve.”

That gentle look was in Paul’s eyes again—the one she really hated. “Of course. I’m happy to help you do as much on your list as I can, but I can’t believe that marrying me was ever on your list.”

She snorted in tired amusement. “No. You were never on my list, but I did have one thing that was always at the top of every list I ever wrote.” She unfolded the paper, smoothed it out, and handed it to him.

Paul took it and silently read what she knew was at the top of the page, written in large, feminine script. “Get married.”

He closed his eyes briefly and took a slow breath. Then he pinned her with that focused gaze. “Emily, I understand that you always wanted to get married, but I’m just not the best candidate.”

“You’re the only candidate. If I’m going to get married before I die, it has to be to you.”

He reflected for a minute before he spoke. “What about that soccer player friend of yours? Laura’s brother. Chris? Isn’t he the one you always had a crush on?”

She sucked in a sharp breath. “How did you know?”

“It was fairly obvious.”

Her cheeks flushed painfully, even at his light tone. “Yes. If it could somehow work out, I’d consider him. But his parents wouldn’t let him, even if he agreed. He’s got another year left in high school, since he didn’t graduate early like me. Plus, he’s traditional. He takes marriage really seriously.”

Paul quirked up one corner of his mouth. “And I don’t?”

Emily slanted him a half-teasing smile, relieved at the return of his sense of humor. “Not to cast aspersions based on your reputation, but it’s pretty clear you’ve been…you’ve been around where women are concerned, so I thought it might not be such a big deal to you. I mean, I figured you’re worldly enough to not think one short marriage has to be a life-altering event. It would just be for three months. Maybe less.”

“But why?” It seemed like he genuinely wanted to know.

She felt a little shaky, but she smiled at him, determined not to let him see that she wasn’t as confident and matter-of-fact as she pretended. “Just to do it. So I can cross it off my list.”

He cleared his throat. “So it’s not…it’s not me. You’re not—”

“Nursing some sort of secret passion for you?” Emily finished for him, embarrassed that he’d even had that thought and determined to eliminate the possibility from his mind completely. “Of course not. You just happen to be available.”

He lifted his eyebrows. “How flattering.”

“I like you. I mean, of course, I like you, Paul. You’re a decent guy, and you’re obviously a great catch in terms of what most women are looking for in a husband. But none of that matters to me at this point.  It’s not about the money at all. I’ll sign a pre-nup or whatever you want. I don’t have anyone to leave money to anyway, and I definitely wouldn’t expect anything from you financially.”

“I know that. I never thought that’s what this is about.” He released a long breath. “You’re only seventeen, Emily.”

“What’s your point?”

“There are laws about marriageable age. In most states, it’s eighteen.”

“Yeah, I thought about that. I even looked it up on the internet. You can get married younger with parental consent, so I figured you could get your lawyer on it, since I don’t have any parents to give consent. I’ll be eighteen next month, and I’m officially emancipated anyway, so maybe that would help sway a judge.”

Paul tightened his lips as he thought. “We could probably get a license with judicial consent, given your situation.”

Emily straightened up. “So you’ll do it?”

“I don’t know. It’s…it feels wrong.”

“It’s not wrong. You wouldn’t be taking advantage of me. In fact, it would be more that I’m taking advantage of you. I really do want to cross this off my list. I know it’s a lot to ask, but it would just be for a couple of months. Unless, maybe, you’re already seeing someone…”

She hadn’t heard about his having a girlfriend, but it certainly wasn’t impossible.

“I’m not seeing anyone right now, but—”

“I know you don’t want to live like a monk for three months or anything.” She stared emphatically at her hands, unable to meet Paul’s eyes. “I’d understand if you need to…to see someone else, as long as….” She trailed off, unable to complete the sentence.

“Emily,” he began, “I wouldn—”

“It doesn’t matter,” she interrupted, wanting to get through with the whole cringe-worthy topic. “You don’t have to explain anything to me. It’s just about being married for me. I wouldn’t expect you to act like a husband.”

“Emily,” Paul said again, reaching out and putting one hand on her shoulder. “You’ve been through a lot in the last couple months, and I’m not sure you’re thinking clearly.”

“Don’t treat me like a child or an idiot. I am thinking clearly. I only have a few months to live, and I want to get through my list.” She picked the list up from the desk, where Paul had placed it. She stared down at the page, hating herself when her eyes blurred over with tears.

She blinked them back and was relieved when her voice didn’t waver. “If you do this for me, and then maybe help me do a few other things on my list—they’re all straightforward like going skydiving and seeing the Pyramids—then I’ll still testify against your father at trial and you can have the satisfaction of helping a dying girl get her last wish.”

Paul sat back in his chair, covering his mouth with his hand and then slowly rubbing his chin. He must have shaved that morning, but his bristles still made a faint scratching sound. He was looking vaguely in her direction, but she knew he wasn’t seeing her.

“Paul, please,” she said, her voice wobbling for the first time. “My aunt was the only family I had left, and now I’ve lost her too. I don’t really have…anything. This list is all I have left.”

It was true. There was a shadow lurking in her mind, threatening to swallow her up at any moment. She wasn’t going to give into it, though, not while there was some way to control the last days of her life.

“Okay.”

“Really?” she asked, brushing a couple of stray tears away. “You’ll do it?”

He nodded and smiled back at her, reaching over to catch her last tear with his thumb and flick it away from her cheek. “I still think it’s not the sanest of plans, and I’ll most likely regret it. But I’ll do it.”

Acting on impulse, she threw herself forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Thank you,” she said into his shoulder.

Paul seemed a little stiff, like he wasn’t used to getting hugs, but he squeezed her lightly with one arm before he pulled away. “You’re welcome.”

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

“If you’re still able and willing to testify, that’s all I need.”

“So we can get married right away? As soon as possible?”

Paul stood up from his desk. “I’ll start working on it. It’s going to take a little time for my lawyer to get judicial consent for the license, but I’ll see if we can rush it.”

For the last several months, it had felt like Emily’s life—her entire existence—was falling apart, bit by bit.

There wasn’t anything left to fall apart.        

In some ways, it was freeing.

Emily’s world wasn’t big, frightening, and confusing anymore. It had narrowed down to a series of tasks she could count on her fingers and toes.

Fourteen items on a sheet of paper. Three months.

One list.

***

Emily could tell her conversation with Paul was about to veer off in an annoying direction.

He’d been nothing but kind and helpful all day, after her proposal that morning—far more than she would have expected from a guy she’d always considered spoiled and entitled.

At the moment, they were in the backseat of a chauffeured car, which was the vehicle Paul had been using since he’d started going around with bodyguards, and they were on their way back from Baltimore.

Once they got into Philadelphia, they had to take a detour to pick up Emily’s last paycheck from the coffee shop where she’d worked for the last two years.

Paul obviously thought it was stupid for her to waste her time picking up the paycheck, since her needs for the next three months wouldn’t even put a dent in the generous trust fund set up for him by his grandfather. But he hadn’t objected.

Evidently, you didn’t tell a dying girl she was being stupid.

His questions now were starting to move in a certain direction, however. A direction Emily didn’t like.

“Are you sure you don’t want to call up your stepmom—”

Former stepmom,” Emily corrected, trying her best not to sneer.

Paul had agreed to do this incredible favor for her, so she really shouldn’t snap his head off—even though she could tell he was about to be obnoxious.

His lips tightened briefly, but he showed no other reaction to her curtness. “Former stepmom. I know you used to be close to your stepsister. What was her name?”

“Stacie. But I haven’t talked to her since her mom walked out on my dad. That’s been years.”

She would have to talk to Stacie eventually if she wanted to complete her list, but the thought of it hurt too much, so she couldn’t even think about it yet.

“Still,” Paul said, his dark eyebrows pulling together in a way that made two little vertical lines on his forehead, “If they’re as close as you have to family—”

“They’re not family,” she broke in, interrupting him for about the hundredth time that day. “I don’t have any family.”

He shifted in the plush seat and looked slightly tense. “I know. But it seems like you should be around people you know and love right now.”

She suddenly realized she’d never seen him look awkward before the last few days. All her life, she’d only known him as confident to the point of arrogance.

Since he’d been five years old, locals had called him Prince Paul, although always out of his hearing. He despised the appellation and had been in the habit of beating up boys in school who were foolish enough to use the nickname to his face.

She’d had the biggest crush on him when she was thirteen and he’d been back from college for the summer to visit his mother. All the girls in the neighborhood had been crazy about him with his slick cars, sexy rebelliousness, and obsession with extreme sports.

Emily wasn’t feeling particularly charmed at the moment. “And I’m telling you I don’t want to. I don’t want to live in the neighborhood at your mom’s old house. I don’t want to be surrounded by people who know me—all hanging around watching me dwindle away. I told you before. I want to live, not wait around to die.”

She wished she hadn’t said so much, after she’d fallen silent. She wasn’t the kind of person who spilled her guts, and she didn’t know why she’d felt the urge now.

“I guess I can understand that,” Paul said, glancing away, out the window.

“How nice for you—to be so understanding.”  She’d intended to sound sarcastic but not quite so bitter. He’d been really great to her, after all. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I know you’re just trying to help. I’m not normally this grouchy.”

To her surprise, his lips tightened again, but this time with an entirely different emotion.

She stared at him. “What? What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” he managed to say with impressive sobriety, since he was obviously suppressing amusement.

“What are you laughing at? I’m really not a grouchy person. You think I’m grouchy?” She wracked her mind, trying to think of what she could have done in the past to give him that impression.

He smiled—the heart-stopping grin that made female hearts flutter.

Even Emily’s. Just a little.

“No, you’re not grouchy. In fact, I always wondered how you managed to smile so much, when you didn’t…didn’t always have an easy time of it.” His gray eyes rested on her with something akin to appreciation.

She knew it wasn’t emotional connection. More like she was a novelty that he found rather intriguing.

“But you’ve got to admit,” he continued with that same suppressed smile in his eyes. “You’ve always been kind of prickly with me.”

“I have not,” she objected automatically.

He arched his eyebrows in an ironic challenge. “A few years ago, I went into your dad’s shop to buy a drink, and you gave me a long, heated lecture on cutting in line.”

“Well, you did cut in line!”

“I did not.” He was laughing for real now. “My friends never let me hear the end of it—getting told off by a girl.”

She tried to resist, but her sense of humor was tickled. She let out a rippling laugh. “You deserved it.”

“I promise you I didn’t. I was the next person in line. You just didn’t like me, for some reason.”

She sobered, knowing he was right.

Paul stopped laughing too. “We didn’t know each other well because of the age difference. But I was part of the neighborhood too, and I don’t think I was ever rude to you or your dad. Why didn’t you like me?”

She shrugged. Told him the truth. “All the girls were crazy about you. I didn’t want anyone to think I was one of them.”

For some reason, she’d always been too irrationally proud to let anyone know the boys she’d liked, the guys she’d had crushes on, the men she was attracted to.

As if admitting it would strip her defenses.

“I don’t think anyone would be mistaken on that front.”

She couldn’t help but smile at his wry tone.

Then his expression changed, and she knew he was going to return to the obnoxious topic, as if he’d sensed her softening and was taking advantage of it. “But, seriously, Emily, I’m not sure it’s really healthy for you to isolate yourself from—”

 “Oh, just shut up.” She hated how young she sounded even as she said the words. She straightened up and managed to say a bit more lucidly, “You’re on this vendetta against your dad, so I’m not sure you can lecture me about emotional health.”

“It’s not a vendetta.”

“Isn’t it? Aren’t you doing everything you can to get him sent away to prison for life?”

“But not for retribution.”

She raised her eyebrows. “For justice?”

“Why do you sound so dubious?” He looked almost exasperated, as if he’d forgotten he was supposed to treat her with kid gloves.

“You’ve never struck me as someone who would move heaven and earth for some sort of high-blown ideal.”

“Thanks a lot.”

He wasn’t meeting her eyes. He was looking out the car widow past her head, but she suddenly wondered if she’d offended him.

“I didn’t mean it as an insult,” she explained. “But he’s your dad, and a belief in justice isn’t really enough to…to do what you’re doing.”

“Betray him, you mean?”

She swallowed and felt her whole body flush at his frigid tone. About half of their community thought that was exactly what he was doing, and the other half believed Paul was finally stepping up and being a man.

Emily knew it was more complex than either of those things. “I didn’t mean that. I think you’re doing the right thing. But it’s got to be hard—since he’s your dad.”

“Our relationship was never anything like yours with your father.”

“I know.”

“He was never really a father to me.”

“I know.”

Neither said anything for a full minute.

Then Paul added, as if as an afterthought, “I owe it to my mom.”

“Owe what?” Even two months ago, she never would have had the boldness to question Paul Marino so directly. He’d always been a prince—too distant to really touch.

But nothing felt the same now. Not even Paul.

“I owe it to her to make something of my life. To do something…something worthwhile.”

Emily suddenly understood Paul in a way she hadn’t before.

His mother’s death last year had been a kind of turning point for him. He wasn’t in the gossip columns for partying or wild stunts nearly as much as he used to be. He’d gone to the U.S. attorney voluntarily several months ago, after Emily had overheard the conversation, and offered to add his testimony to the case. She hadn’t really thought about it much, since so much had happened to her in the meantime, but he must be trying to turn over a new leaf.

“Oh. I thought it was about winning. Beating him.”

“That too.”

His tone was dry, but she was sure he was speaking the truth.

Everyone had something that was most important to them. Getting justice for his father—for his mother’s sake—was the most important thing to Paul.

Finishing her list—living before she died—was the most important thing to Emily.

***

“Are you crazy?” Chris demanded. “You’ve seriously got to be crazy.”

Chris Mason had been a friend of hers since they’d both been four, and for a while she’d thought she was in love with him, before she’d realized that crush was going nowhere.

She did love him as a friend, but she didn’t want to talk to him right now.

She gave the counter an angry swipe with her rag. When she’d stopped by to pick up her paycheck, Jill had gotten a call about an emergency with her kids, so Emily agreed to watch the shop for an hour. “I’m not crazy,” she gritted out. “This is what I want to do, and he’s helping me.”

“But you’re just seventeen.”

“I’ll be eighteen in four weeks. I’m emancipated. I’ve graduated from high school. I know what I’m doing. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t get married if I want to.”

“But I never thought you had fairytale dreams like that.”

She stiffened. “What does that mean?”

“Nothing bad. It’s just kind of a romantic thing to do—getting married like this. I didn’t think you were like that.”

She used to be like that. When she was a little girl. She’d had the same kind of daydreams as everyone else. She’d just quickly learned they never came true.

“I’m not romantic. This isn’t about chasing a fairytale. You know me better than that.”

“Yeah. But…”

“I’m dying. I know. That’s why I want to do this before it’s too late.”

“But why Paul?”

“Who else?”

That stumped Chris. He didn’t respond. Just looked at her in concern.

She sighed and twisted the rag in both hands. “There’s no one else, Chris. I know it’s kind of crazy, but it’s the first thing on my list. And I really want to do everything before I die.”

His face contorted briefly, and she suddenly realized this was hurting him.

With a lump in her throat, she pulled him into a hug. “I know this whole thing is terrible, but it’s either sit around here and wait to die. Or do this. I want to do this.”

Chris hugged her back, but he was frowning when he pulled away. “I get it. I really do. But do you really think you can trust Paul?”

“Why shouldn’t I?  He’s always been kind of irresponsible, but he seems to be pulling it together lately.”

“Well, just be careful around him.”

“He’s not like his father. You know that. He hates him. He doesn’t want anything to do with him.”

The incident that had confirmed Paul as a prince in their neighborhood was when, during the vicious divorce battle between his mother and father, he’d sided entirely with his mother. He never accepted a dime from his father, not since he was thirteen years old.

“Yeah. I know. But you know how he is with girls. He might try to…try to…” Chris cleared his throat, adorably awkward at the topic. “Get in your pants,” he concluded lamely.

Emily laughed out loud, in genuine amusement, her eyes straying to the corner where Chris’s sister, Laura, was sitting at a table, sipping a mocha and texting on her phone.

Laura was gorgeous and built like a model, and she’d dated Paul for almost six months last year, the longest he’d ever dated anyone. For a while, it looked like he might have really fallen for her, but they’d finally broken up.

Laura was exactly Paul’s type.

Emily wasn’t.

“Well, we’ll be married, after all.”

Chris looked so upset by her tongue-in-cheek response that Emily hugged him again. “Please don’t worry about me. I’m the one that engineered this. Not him. He’s just being a good guy and helping me out.”

As if on cue, the bell on the shop door sounded, and she pulled back from Chris’s chest to see Paul entering.

As usual, everyone glanced over to acknowledge his entrance. He’d always been the center of any room he walked into.

Now, he frowned and started over to her. “What are you doing?” His eyes unerringly took in the rag in her hand and the apron she’d wrapped around her waist. “Are you working?”

“Jill had an emergency.”

“Why are you—”

Since he looked irrationally annoyed by her decision to fill in for her friend, Emily had no qualms about interrupting him. “You know Chris?”

“Sure. Laura’s brother.” Paul held his hand out and shook Chris’s hand distractedly. “There’s no reason you need to be working…”

Emily assumed he’d finished the thought, but she didn’t hear it because she walked away.

She’d never liked anyone to boss her. Not even her father.

She certainly wasn’t going to stand around and be bossed by Paul Marino.

She’d gone to the back to get some more coffee cups, dutifully ignoring Paul and his obnoxiousness. When she pushed through the door again, though, he was right there waiting.

For some reason, she felt an unexpected surge of attraction, which was ridiculous because he obviously wasn’t trying to be sexy at the moment. Mostly he looked grumpy and exasperated with his rumpled dark hair and tense jaw.

But she experienced an intense wave of attraction. Not in the old way—that distant idolization—but rather a visceral response to the masculinity he exuded.

It left her breathless. And incredibly annoyed with herself.

“You shouldn’t have to be working,” he said, as if there hadn’t been any interruption in their conversation. “Especially not now—”

“That I’m dying?” she finished tartly.

He took a breath, obviously planning to respond.

She didn’t let him. “I don’t care if you think work is somehow beneath me now I’m going to get married to you. I’ve worked all my life, and that’s not going to change now. I’m not a spoiled rich boy who lives on a trust fund and wastes his life partying, sleeping around, and jumping out of planes. This is me. This is what I do. Most people can’t lounge around all day doing nothing.”

Paul’s expression grew tighter and tighter as she spoke, and his eyes were cold and hard when she’d finished. “What have I done to deserve that?”

Emily drooped, letting out her pent breath in a rush. “Nothing. You haven’t done anything to me. I’m sorry if I was harsh.”

His mouth softened slightly. “I really wasn’t suggesting that you shouldn’t work because we’re going to get married.”

“Then why all the bossing?”

“I’m not convinced ‘bossing’ is the appropriate descriptor of my conduct just now.”

Despite herself, Emily snorted in amusement at his dry, lofty tone, even though she knew that was the response he’d been looking for.

Paul might be irresponsible and entitled, but he’d always been incredibly smart. He finished college when he was twenty and went on to get his MBA. How he managed to successfully earn his degree last month while still indulging his very wild lifestyle she couldn’t even imagine.

“Well,” Emily said, forcing down her defensiveness since it wasn’t really Paul’s fault, “It wouldn’t kill you to get a job.”

To her surprise, he didn’t laugh or shrug her comment off. “Believe it or not, I’ve been trying.”

Taken off guard, she blurted out the obvious question. “Where do you want a job?”

“Simone’s.”

Paul was neighborhood royalty not because of his father’s reputation. His mother’s family had been equally important in the community—her great-grandfather having made a fortune by starting Simone’s, a national department store chain, and her father having been savvy enough to transition to successful online retailing just in time to keep the company from going bust.

His mother had died last year, leaving all she had to her son, but he couldn’t claim most of it or his share in the company until he turned twenty-five.

Emily could hardly blame the woman for not risking everything her family had worked to achieve on a reckless bad-boy like Paul.

“What kind of job are you trying to get? Mail room clerk? Receptionist?”

The corner of his mouth turned up briefly. “I’m not expecting to be appointed CEO at twenty-three, but I’m perfectly well-qualified for some sort of position. The board just doesn’t trust me.”

“Can you blame them?”

The smile disappeared. “It’s my family’s company.”

“Yeah.” Emily thought about it for a minute, surprised and faintly pleased that Paul was actually serious about his desire to work in his mother’s company. In all the years she’d known him, he hadn’t appeared to take anything seriously. Not until recently. “Good thing the press hasn’t caught wind of that. Evil board members heartlessly shutting out grieving son from his birthright.”

Paul was leaning on the counter, but now he straightened up suddenly. His brows drew together.

“What?” she asked.

He shook his head. He might have said something, but Jill burst through the door just then, immediately breaking into effusive thanks for Emily.

Not wanting to leave Jill with a mess, Emily went to clear some of the plates and cups from a couple of tables. When she turned around, she realized that Laura had gone over to talk to Paul.

Actually, hang all over him would be a more accurate description. And Paul was smiling back at her.

Emily met Chris’s eyes across the room, and she knew what her friend was thinking.

Chris thought Paul was a player. Thought he’d never be faithful, never be a good husband, not even for a few months.

He didn’t realize that Emily wasn’t expecting Paul to be any such thing.

This wasn’t about fulfilling some girlish, fairytale daydream. It was simply about completing her list.

One thing Emily knew very well.

There were Lauras in the world, and there were Emilys.

The Lauras were adored by all who saw them, winning admirers and lovers by doing nothing more than flashing a smile. The Lauras married rich men and lived lives of ease and safety.

The Emilys of the world had to scrimp for every penny. Even though they were smart and nice and pretty enough, they still made it through high school without ever having a real boyfriend—since no one of interest ever asked them out. The Emilys of the world made stupid mistakes, like overhearing a mob boss’s conversation about drug trafficking and money laundering. And, being too stubborn to be intimidated into silence, the Emilys of the world ended up in ridiculously melodramatic scenarios like becoming witnesses in federal trials.

And then they contracted mysterious viruses that would kill them at eighteen.

Emily used to have daydreams like everyone else, but she’d long since given up hoping they would come true. It was fine. She’d always been self-sufficient, and she wasn’t going to start feeling sorry for herself now.

She had her list, and Paul had agreed to help her complete it. That was all the kindness she could expect from the universe.

There were Lauras in the world, and there were Emilys.

The Emilys didn’t get the happy ending.

And they never got the prince.

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